If baseball is the circle of life, dying as autumn leaves fall and renewing itself each spring, football is a straight line to oblivion: It starts when everything is green and happy and ends with one ragged survivor standing out black against a colorless wash of snow and sky.
For the rest of this increasingly harsh and bitter month, VICE Sports will trek across the NFL, painting each team's map to postseason—if they have one.
IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY
The Indianapolis Colts may have lost their season when they lost to the Houston Texans this week. Now 2-3 in division, and swept by the Texans, they've got to make up two wins in three games without playing either of the teams they're chasing.
If Houston loses out, and the Titans only beat the Texans, the Colts can afford to lose one game of their remaining slate: At Oakland, at Minnesota, or against Jacksonville. Gulp.
The Titans are on the losing end of the tiebreakers against either the Colts or Texans, but if the Titans somehow win in Kansas City this week and handle their business against the Jaguars, they're likely to host a win-and-in game against Houston. If they can't beat Kansas City, they'll need help.
The Texans are 4-0 in the division, and this week's home game against Jacksonville should make that 5-0. Even if the Texans then lose to Cincinnati—and even if Tennessee or Indianapolis go 2-0 over the next two weeks—the Texans can still win the division by winning their regular-season finale in Tennessee.
The Bengals picked up a much-needed win against the Cleveland Browns (sorry, Cleveland!) in Week 14. But at 5-7-1, the Cincinnati Bengals are all but mathematically out of it. They're chasing the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, and still have a game left against each. However, even running the table will only give them eight wins, so the Steelers must lose out. After the Bengals, and hosting the Ravens, the Steelers close their season with (wait for it) the Browns.
Once again, more simply: The Bengals only path to the postseason relies on the Steelers losing a must-win game at home to the Browns.
Meanwhile, the Ravens loss to the New England Patriots drops them from the AFC's No. 3 seed to out of the field entirely. This week's matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles could break a number of ways, depending on how the Steelers do against the Bengals. But it's all likely going to come down to the Week 16 game between these two teams; since the Ravens won the first round they can claw back with a win and potentially go ahead on the tiebreaker.
The Steelers likely win over the Browns gives them a little breathing room—but even with a one game lead and one game all but automatic, the Ravens can still steal the division from them by running the table.
Technically, the Pats haven't clinched anything yet. Practically, they just beat one of the few teams that seemed likely to cause them trouble. This week's tilt in Denver looked a lot scarier at the beginning of the season, and the New York Fighting Bryce Petties will offer little resistance.
BUT if the Pats lose both those games, and the Dolphins win in both of those weeks, the season finale will decide the division—and in that scenario, a Dolphins win would give them an equal overall record (11-5), split head-to-head and a better divisional record (5-1 vs. 4-2).
As unlikely as that scenario is, the Dolphins winning two of three could sneak them in into the field as a Wild Card; two very winnable road games against the Jets and Bills could set head coach Adam Gase up for a playoff campaign in his very first year. Of course, he'll have to do it with backup quarterback Matt Moore, but...
The Bills are technically alive, and with games against the Browns and Jets remaining it's possible—if not probable—they get to 9-7. I's almost certainly going to take at least 10 wins to get that second Wild Card berth, however, and winning three straight games seems like a huge task for this squad.
What a difference a game makes, eh? One Thursday Night Football after our first Playoff Picture, and the Chiefs have snatched the division (and No. 2 seed position, and therefore first-round bye) from the Raiders.
With the hungry Titans coming to town this week, plus division games against the Broncos and Chargers, pulling further ahead is no gimme. But the Raiders are also facing the Chargers, Colts, and Broncos; Kansas City's head-to-head tiebreaker sweep seems likely to decide which team gets to start the playoffs at home in the second round, and which plays the opening round on the road.
The Chargers can technically run the table, get to eight wins and get in with a LOT of help, but...yeah, not happening.
The Minnesota Vikings stayed alive in Week 14 by driving a gratuitous nail into the Jaguars well-sealed coffin. But they'll have to run the table to get to 10 wins—and on that table is a Week 16 game at Lambeau Field. Should they lose it, the Vikings would split the season series with Packers and lose on the divisional-record tiebreaker (the Vikings would get to 2-4 at best, the Packers would be no worse than 3-3).
This presumes, of course, the Vikings are fighting off the Packers for a Wild Card berth—not the Lions, whom they can't catch due to the head-to-head tiebreakers, nor Washington, the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all of whom they're currently looking up at.
The Packers don't quite control their path to the playoff, but it's close. Should they beat the Bears in Chicago, Minnesota at home and finish a season sweep of the Lions in the finale, they'll sit at 10-6 and own the Lions head-to-head. Best of all for the cheeseheads, Detroit has two brutal road games at the Giants and Cowboys coming up, and would have to win both to put the division out of reach.
But this scenario overlooks a few things: Namely that the Bears have been feisty lately, the Vikings are never an easy out, and the Lions are 6-1 at home.
Speaking of, the Lions sit in the NFC's No. 2 spot, in position for a first-round bye. Should they beat the Giants in New Jersey and the Packers lose to the Bears, the Lions could clinch their first NFC North championship since there became such a thing in the 2002 realignment (and first division title since 1993).
Of course, if you flip those results around, that season finale against the Packers becomes winner-take-all.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is now officially former Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, and the Rams have no path to the postseason.
The Seattle Seahawks blowout loss to the Packers dropped them out of the No. 2 seed and into the first-round hoi polloi; perhaps more discouraging is just how terrible they looked against a six-win team. The good news is they still have a three-game lead on the Cardinals with three games left to play, and since all three are within the division, that includes two likely wins against the hapless Rams and 49ers. As long as they don't completely collapse and lose all three games, the division—and potentially that No. 2 seed—will be theirs.
Meanwhile, the 5-7-1 Cardinals have to not only go into CenturyLink and beat the Seahawks—which no team has done all year—but take care of the Saints at home and Rams on the road. It's almost certainly not happening, and even two wins puts them at an uncompetitive 7-8-1.
Wins by both the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers pushed each squad to 8-5, with a split season series and tied divisional record (3-1). But while the Falcons get the New Orleans Saints at home and Carolina Panthers on the road, the Bucs have to go into the Superdome, a difficult place to play no matter the Saints record.
Further, this week the Bucs go to Dallas to play the NFC's No. 1 seed, while the Falcons other remaining game is a home contest against the miserable 49ers. The Bucs will likely have to run the table and pray one of their division rivals plays spoiler.
The good news: Both NFC South teams have a great shot at 10 wins, which will almost certainly be good enough to get them into the postseason.
The Cowboys may have lost in Week 14, but they gained something: They became the first team to clinch a playoff berth.
Of course, when you've spent nearly all season in the NFC's pole position, expectations are much higher than just getting in. Getting swept by the only team in position to catch you is a terrible look right before playing two likely playoff teams, but all the Cowboys have to do is win two of their next three games to secure the division and with it, the first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Giants win over the Cowboys was massive, making a theoretical push for the NFC East possible—but again, they face the Lions, then play back-to-back divisional road games against Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles. Win any two and they're assured a spot in the field; lose this week against the Lions and things start getting sketchy.
Washington did what they needed to do in Week 14; they've just got to handle their business against the Panthers and Bears to get to 9-5-1. With a lot of help, that could be good enough to get in—but their Week 17 finale against the Giants still looks like a decisive game for both teams.